Clemencia Johnson ’09 sits in class listening and taking notes like every other student here at the College of William and Mary. When class ends, students leave to meet with friends, surf the internet or finish homework at the library. But Johnson leaves class to face a long commute, household chores and a family to raise — not to mention her academic work.
“Non-traditional” is an often-heard but little-understood term here at the College. Prime Tribe, an organization for non-traditionally aged students, works to change these misconceptions on campus one lunch at a time.
The idea of Prime Tribe originated with Sharon Reed ’05 and was chartered as an organization in the fall of 2007. The organization is designed to meet the needs of non-traditional students, classified as any student over the age of 24 seeking an undergraduate degree. Every week, members of Prime Tribe are invited to stop by for lunch and conversation with other non-traditional students.
“We keep it on a social level, but if someone is suffering a crisis, then more than likely there are other students that have already faced it,” President of Prime Tribe Kathy Eggers ’09 said. “We are a support system as well.”
The infrequent lunch attendance (sometimes only one or two students are able to attend) illustrates the fact that non-traditional students usually have more responsibilities and obstacles to face than traditional students.
“With our group, it is so hard to get together at the same time,” Eggers said. “No one is on campus at the same time. Our members live anywhere from 15 miles away to 75 miles away from campus.”
For many non-traditional students, the responsibilities of parenthood compete with their academic course load. Deborah Szymecki ’10, a former stay-at-home mom, feels that higher education could improve her chances for a higher paying job. This was Szymecki’s first time at a Prime Tribe lunch event, but she enthusiastically entered the conversation.
“There are problems with going to school full-time and having a family,” Szymecki said. “You have to not treat it like a crutch, yet it is a reality. When I get home, it’s usually throw in the wash, sweep something, start with [my children’s] homework, or I have to pick someone up or run someone somewhere. I’m usually up till 2 a.m. doing my homework.”
Sacrificing parts of their daily routines is just one of the challenges faced by non-traditional students.
“Absolutely, there are sacrifices,” Eggers said. “You can’t participate in the campus festivities. You have laundry, cleaning and kids to take care of.”
Eggers, a long-time legal and business professional, returned to community college and finally the College when she realized that without a bachelor’s degree there was a ceiling to her income. A full-time student, single mother and president of the organization, she recognizes the key concerns of its members.
“Many non-traditional students feel isolated at first, but they must embrace the school,” she said. “You try to embrace and integrate into campus where you can.”
Non-traditionally aged students participate in orientation with transfer students because they don’t have freshman halls like traditionally aged students. For many attendees of the lunch, this is where their fears about returning to school find a common voice and support.
“I made lots of friends with non-traditional student transfers in orientation,” said Phillip Mariscal ’11. “Talking to them, we found we all have the same fears, whether it was like me — I was 34 when I began. Everyone had a fear of transferring in.”
Mariscal currently organizes and attends many of the weekly Prime Tribe lunches. After working odd jobs for many years, he returned to a community college and then came to the College, where he hopes to use his degree toward a writing career. Though Mariscal left the lunch early to meet a professor at Swem, he explained how integrated his social life is at the College.
“I thought campus would be more separated, but I have non-traditional friends and traditional friends,” he said.
After raising her three sons and returning to community college, Johnson came to the College. Her husband and a professor at Thomas Nelson Community College motivated her to apply to the College. As an immigrant from South America, Johnson hopes to use her degree and English as a Second Language teaching experience to help adult immigrants in the community learn the language and culture of their new home. Arriving from her Hispanics Studies class, this was Johnson’s fourth Prime Tribe lunch this semester. Though these lunches are a way to get to know fellow non-traditional students, Johnson feels welcomed by the rest of the campus community, too.
“[I thought] oh boy, I’m coming to school with students who were younger than my own, but it’s been great,” said Johnson. “It is hard. It is tough. It is challenging. But it’s so motivating; it’s so neat to be around younger people. They have never made me feel anything apart from the rest of the students, neither have the professors.”
Eggers said that approximately 130 students currently make up the club, and every year the population of non-traditional students at the College increases. In the fall of 2004, only 18 students over the age of 24 were enrolled at the College. This number increased to 39 students in the fall of 2007, according to Kim Van Deusen, the associate dean of Admission. With an increasing number of older students on campus, Eggers talked about plans to increase the range of services of Prime Tribe, including an honor society and scholarships that are geared toward non-traditionally aged students.
“The school wants to be more non-traditional friendly,” Eggers said.
“There is more demand by non-traditional students, and William and Mary is opening up to us.”
Eggers’s work with Prime Tribe not only helps to integrate non-traditional students into the College, but also helps with her own family. Eggers and Szymecki both related how their own academic success is inspiring their children in high school, who are looking at the College as prospective students. Szymecki’s daughter specifically likes the programs at VIMS; she often puts a priority on her daughters’ homework over her own.
“I’m trying to keep [my children] focused and well-balanced so they do end up here, like me,” Szymecki said.